29 July 2009

From mourning to belief

St Martha: Ex 34.29-35; John 11.19-27
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

In the presence of the people, Moses veils his face, shielding them from God's radiance even while sharing with them the Lord's commands; in the presence of the Lord himself, Martha unveils her face, revealing her grief to Jesus even while confessing her belief in him. Moses must hide God's brilliance so that the people will hear what the Lord has to say. Martha must show Jesus her mourning so that he will ask of her, “Do you believe?” Both Moses and Martha see the Lord face-to-face. Both hear him and converse with him. Moses speaks with God for the sake of His people. Martha speaks with Jesus for the sake of her deceased brother, Lazarus. Moses is the anointed prophet of God and leader of His people. Martha is sister to Mary; friend to Jesus; and no one has anointed her to be a prophet or herald, yet she believes that Jesus is the promised one to come; she proclaims his arrival among us; and names him, she names him Christ, the Messiah. What Moses must hide so that others might see, Martha announces so that all may hear.

If you have ever mourned, you know how wholly consuming the pain can be. The gravity of loss drags against every offer of comfort, or and possibility of relief. Nothing, no one can lift the ruinous pressure that squeezes your guts and chokes your heart. There is nothing to see behind you anymore and nothing of promise for tomorrow. There is only more defeat in the futile hours that circle around. . .again and again. Martha and Mary mourn the death of Lazarus, their brother. They do not grieve alone—neighbors, friends, family visit with them. Martha goes out to meet Jesus on his way. Finding him, she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. . .” She “says” this? Or does she scream it? Is she accusing Jesus of neglect? Is she merely disappointed in him, or just annoyed? Do you hear grief in her voice? “Lord, if you had been here. . .” If only, you had been here. . .

What we could easily take to be Martha's accusation against Jesus, quickly turns into something else entirely: “...my brother would not have died [had you been here, Lord]. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” From accusatory outburst to faith-filled profession, Martha moves from being a grieving sister to speaking as a holy prophet of God. Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise. And Martha, in tone that could put steel in the weakest stomach, answers, “I know he will rise. . .” The strength of her conviction almost overshadows Jesus' moment of glory: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. . .” We can safely assume that Jesus never sputtered when he spoke, but it is not too much to imagine that he may have been both a little surprised and greatly pleased by Martha's faith. Nonetheless, he must ask. . .

Do you believe this? Do you believe that if you believe in Christ Jesus, you will never die, and if you die, you will live again? Martha says in answer to this question, “I have come to believe. . .” In other words, not always fully convinced of your name or mission, over time I have found belief, arrived at faith, been convicted in the spirit that you are the Christ. Martha is our prophet of progressing belief, of unfolding faith. She is our patron saint of those who Come to Believe despite their anger, their grief; despite all the evidence and argument against believing; over the objections of family, friends, colleagues; and, overriding disappointment and accusation, come to know that all will be made well—even death—all will be made well. But first we must believe. We must watch what cannot clearly be seen, reach for what cannot be grasped. Only by watching and reaching do we ever see or grasp.

Martha wants to know, “Do you believe?”


  1. Tom L8:28 AM

    Interesting. I never noticed that Martha's answer uses the perfect tense. I wonder why most translations make it "I believe" (RSV, NIV, KJV, NJB). Score one for the NAB.

  2. not for nothing Fr....but these daily homilies are a little....overwhelming.


  3. Lovely...I think I'll send this on to my sister...her daughter Martha is 10 years old...she'll like it.

  4. Anonymous9:04 AM

    Really great, thank you!